Mirror’s Edge was one of those games that was a breath of fresh air in the gaming industry when it came out at the tail end of 2008. When grey shooters still dominated the market, it brought a bright palette of primary colors and allowed players to play as Faith, a parkour runner in a vaguely dystopian metropolis, untangling the net of corruption that threatened to destroy her sister and her own way of life. The movement-based gameplay was revolutionary, the art style gorgeous, and the story was focused and personal.
Seven and a half years have passed since its release, and the industry has moved forward. Movement factors into gameplay more, and art styles have begun to get more vibrant again. So is Catalyst a triumphant return, or will it be like its predecessor – good, perhaps great, but overshadowed by its peers?
Over this past weekend I had the opportunity to participate in the Mirror’s Edge Catalyst closed beta. Not much – just an hour or so of gameplay, a couple times over. I could have gone a bit farther, but I wanted to record some in-game footage, and I didn’t want to get too far without the full copy of the game. Since I consider myself a fan of the original (credentials: two fanfilms and a car with Faith’s arm tattoo on the sides), I thought it appropriate to get down my thoughts on the beta and reflect a bit on the upcoming game.
Right from the get-go it’s apparent that DICE knows that there’s a specific way that a Mirror’s Edge game should look. Bright white dominates the screen, broken up by large swaths of bold colors. Primary colors dominate, orange appears now and then, and so far just one instance of green to unsettle the player. It’s light, it’s airy, it’s just right for this series. I’m sure that as the game progresses, darker areas will start to be more prevalent as things get worse for Faith, but the aesthetic remains.
Gameplay is likewise smooth. On the Xbox One (tested), the movement controls are very similar. Up movement actions are taken with the left bumper, and down actions with the trigger. Doors are broken open with the right trigger, though combat has moved from that same button to X and Y for light and heavy attacks, respectively. It looks to offer more variety in combat – something I’m not sold on, as I’ve always felt that Mirror’s Edge was at its best when you were running from danger rather than wading into it, but acknowledging that you’ll be fighting a fair amount of the time and working to make it more involved seems to be working so far. It encourages use of the environment as well, aiming kicks to send enemies over banisters and into each other.
There are a few gameplay elements that weren’t in the original as well. The first game was linear – you’re dropped into a mission and have to go from point A to point B by any way possible. There’d be a “primary” way, but you were free to find other routes. Catalyst stays with the times and has become an open world game – the city (now called Glass) always exists around you, and you’re just given waypoints and – again – a suggested path to get there. Frankly I haven’t yet seen the gameplay benefit of open-world – the buildings mostly seem similar, and when I hop on a skyway connecting buildings I never know if I’ve been there before because of how similar they all look. I’m sure in time I’ll start to recognize landmarks (I have a decent sense of direction in parts of Mad Max, and I know the entire map of 2005’s Need For Speed: Most Wanted like the back of my hand), but for now it pales in comparison to the carefully constructed levels in the first game.
Another change to gameplay is the HUD. The first game had no heads-up display at all save for an optional reticle to help ease motion sickness; it also lit up blue when Faith had slow-motion stored up from maintaining her speed for a while. Catalyst adds a minimalist health bar and flow meter to the bottom left. I hate the health bar; the first game desaturated the bright colors of the game as you took damage, and adding a health bar feels like a cheap cop-out. I suppose so the size of the health car could be increased through leveling up on the skill trees. (Catalyst also adds skill trees. Sure, Catalyst. We’ll have to see about that.) The flow bar, meanwhile, doesn’t grant you use of slow-motion (near as I can tell it doesn’t exist in this game, though perhaps I just haven’t gotten to it); instead it measures Faith’s momentum, and as long as it stays full – and you keep finding paths of least resistance – you can’t be hit by bullets. And while I wish it were integrated in a non-HUD fashion (blue around the reticle done was pretty awesome), the prospect of not getting hit and slowed down by stray bullets sounds incredibly appealing. Again, I haven’t run into any gun-toting enemies yet, but I know it’ll just be a matter of time.
Speaking of guns, DICE heard the complaints the last time around about gunplay. Faith was never meant to use guns – a pistol might be okay, but heavier guns slowed her down and kept her from using some of her necessary movement skills, and even then she wasn’t a very good shot with them. I was fine with that – guns were a last-ditch resource that you were encouraged not to use at all. Still, the game became so much easier when you allowed yourself to use them (my Normal Pacifist playthrough was roughly five-times harder than Rambo Faith on Hard difficulty), and DICE has sought to rebalance this for Catalyst – they’ve stated that Faith will not use guns in the new game, period. So far all enemies I’ve fought have likewise used melee weapons, but I look forward to seeing how the situations against ranged opponents arise and can be handled.
And so, the story. Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is a reboot. The protagonist is mostly the same, and in broad strokes her parents were similar as well in that they were against the establishment. More than that I don’t yet know. I confess to being rather hung up on why the story even needed to be rebooted – it already had a prequel in the form of a comic written by Rhianna Pratchett (writer of the game as well as games like Heavenly Sword, Overlord and the new Tomb Raider series, who was not asked to return for Catalyst) and illustrated by Matthew Dow Smith (Doctor Who, The X-Files) and had a great sequel hook, as Faith and her freshly-rescued ex-cop sister stand atop the Shard. (Spoilers.) I would have loved a sequel, perhaps even co-op, that switched between Faith’s parkour gameplay and something a bit more traditional for Kate, but maybe they felt they didn’t have anywhere to go, so the fast train to reboot-town it is.
The game feels a bit more futuristic than its predecessor, with flying drones and hover VTOLs dominating the skies instead of the present-day or very-near-future helicopters in the first. Apparently people on the grid have an augmented reality overlay as well, feeding them ads and stock prices and all that other junk, which you experience for a few minutes before you’re disconnected again. As for the main story hook, I can’t say I’m sure – the first game dealt with a private security firm, Pirandello-Kruger, taking over the job of the City Protection Force and generally doing the corruption dance the whole way, and you clearing your CPF sister of any wrongdoing. With Catalyst, the big bad appears to be KrugerSec (Pirandello apparently having disappeared in the transition along with the rest of the cast). But so far they haven’t done anything, aside from having baddies get in Faith’s way as she does totally illegal stuff. So I suppose we’ll see.
(Also the theme music that plays at the title isn’t nearly as cool as Lisa Miskovsky’s “Still Alive”. I mean, come on.)
Mirror’s Edge Catalyst comes out on June 7th after numerous delays. I have my reservations on the story (and, also, skill trees? Really?) but everything else seems spot-on – after quite some time away, DICE has come back to Faith and is giving her a game that feels right. It looks right, it seems like it will play right, and gosh darn it it’s so beautiful and different that even if the story is just so-so I’ll still play it for years to come.
Be sure to check back after the release for a full review of the finished game!
Mirror’s Edge Catalyst
Platform: Windows (Origin), Xbox One, PlayStation 4
Price: $59.99 (Collector’s Edition: $199.99)
Release Date: June 7th, 2016